28 Days of Thesis Updates: Day One


When you do a creative writing PhD they don’t necessarily ask you to write a thesis. Instead, they get you to write a creative project (in my case, a whopping great lot of short stories) and then write an short exegesis that serves as a kind of thesis-substitute where you do thesis-type-things such as critical analysis of the work and practice, but done with the knowledge that you’re the writer of the creative text up front and center. The irony is that no-one really knows what the boundaries are when you’re doing these yet – the idea only really started to gain traction in the last two decades or so (from what I’m seeing, anyway; the name comes from analytical studies of the bible, and they’ve been doing it for a lot while) and there are relatively sparse examples of what a good exegetical document looks like out there. And, just like television and film spent their formative years mimicking the trappings of theater because no-one had really pushed the boundaries of what the mediums could do, most of the sample exegetical work for PhD’s out there read much like a traditional thesis in a truncated form. If you don’t want to do that (and, given the general “genre’s are slippery” theme of my thesis, it’d feel odd to do so) you’re kind of left to make it up as you go along with only a vague kind of outline; basically, imagine trying to write a short story without having the basic grounding in things like character and plot and beginning, middles, and ends. That’s part of what’s been doing my head in with this process. And I’ve been known to take tutorials explaining this process to undergraduates before, so it’s not like I have a complete lack of understanding.

The other thing that does my head in is this: after six years of sitting down and thinking about this, writing stories and making notes, I don’t seem to be able to annunciate what my project’s about.


My head’s not completely empty on this point – I can natter about the gothic influence on my work for days if you’d let me; I can explain the way I grew intrigued by the shifts in genre over time, and why I think spec-fic (and the general populace in general) seems to have this growing interest in works that sit on genre-borders such as slipstream and magic realism; I can rabbit on and on about the way the fantastic is used as a kind of healing balm for social and psychological problems in fiction and film. But for the last two weeks I’ve basically sat at my computer circling around those ideas, trying to pin down the way I could approach all this and make it hang together as an exegesis (or, I’ll admit, a thesis – I grew desperate enough to lower my expectations eventually). I’ve had at least five epiphanies where I cried “of course, it’s about this,” but completely failed to take it any further than yet another five hundred word potential opening paragraph that doesn’t feel right.

There are certain things I knew I wanted to do – I knew I wanted to start with something personal, to really establish the fact that I was engaging with the concept of exegesis rather than straight thesis from the outset; I knew I was going to talk about the gothic as an influencing factor on the stories I submitted, even though they might not be gothic stories themselves; I knew I wanted to talk about a bunch of spec-fic movements, and I knew that I wasn’t particularly interested in arguing the traditional spec-fic/literary divide that seems to come up every so often (my supervisors, god-blessem, have never had any issues with the fact that I use the fantastic in my work, though they do [very] occasionally drift towards comments of the “this is surprisingly literary ilk.”) I knew I wanted to talk the process of genre itself – the way it forms in our heads and the reason I can see gothic influences or scenes in the film Mary Poppins, say, while someone else might not – and to address it on “short story, novel, exegesis” kind of level rather than remaining on a “SF, fantasy, literature” kind of note. (My supervisors advice on all this – “write an account of your own writing, explaining the understanding you have of your genre/s” – is kinda helpful, yes, but also, geez, my god, that’s *huge*. His advice to treat it like a series of lectures helps though – apparently the way I lecture is basically exegetical in approach).


As of last night, I think I might have cracked it. What I wrote isn’t so much an introduction as a statement of intent, but it feels kinda right – to borrow a phrase from Russel Davies The Writer’s Tale, it’s helped stop the exegesis from being a big blob of wibbly-wobbly Maybe and transformed it into something more concrete. It’s got direction and a way of breaking up the sections and all the things I wanted it to have. It’s rough as hell – about two thousand words of light meandering – but it’s there and it feels right enough and said what it needed to say that all these fragmentary attempts at an opening that were sitting in my work-in-progress file got deleted because they weren’t adding anything new. I’ll be sad when this intro needs to be re-written, as it inevitably will once the rest of the exegesis takes shape and required more detail added in, but it’ll get me started. And it largely comes down to rejection letters (or rather, two specific rejection letters which kind of haunt me because of genre-related stuff).

The best bit is that it allows me to address a lot of the inconsistencies I feel straight up. To whit, a fragment –

Yet I do this with a moment of irony as well – although I shy away from claiming my fiction as part of the gothic, I’m not shy about describing my practice in genre terms. These texts were created as works of speculative fiction, a catch-all term frequently used to collectively describe the fantasy, science fiction, and horror; and at their core they remain non-mimetic narratives linked, as China Mieville suggests all spec-fic is, by the conceit that they ‘literalize their metaphors’ (Gothic Journal, 2008, pg 65). Whatever literary traits editors, readers and supervisors find in my work, I’m primarily interested in presenting and promoting myself as a spec-fic writer and it’s as a writer of speculative fiction that I find myself most fascinated with the way genre shapes the meaning, marketing, and authorial identity in a creative work.

Messy, yes, with sloppy referencing that’ll need to get fixed and a kind of po-faced obnoxiousness to it, but it’ll do. It’ll get me started. And I do so love that Meiville quote – it’s one of the first things I’ve ever seen that really addresses what makes a spec-fic story a spec-fic story, linking the horror and the SF and the Fantasy – while giving a basis for discussing why Margaret Atwood may actually be right when she says she’s not a SF writer 🙂

Of course, getting this down also dropped my word-count from about six thousand words to about three and a half. Which isn’t good, because I’m already behind the eight-ball on this, but such is life.

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